Aftermath of tragedyWhile probe will provide answers on plane crash, adherence to procedure was lacking
On Monday, Nepal’s only international airport experienced a major tragedy. A Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 aircraft belonging to Bangladesh-based US-Bangla Airlines crashed and burst into flames after an “abnormal” landing right off Tribhuvan International Airport’s (TIA) only runway. The aircraft was carrying 67 passengers and four crew members. Fifty-one people are confirmed to have perished. Of the 22 Nepali citizens confirmed to have died, 11 were medical students studying in Bangladesh—they were travelling back to Nepal for their vacation. With the rest of the passengers undergoing treatment at various hospitals in the Valley, hope remains that all the survivors, some of them in critical condition, recover wholly—this tragedy does not need another victim.
This is, without a doubt, the worst air crash in Nepal’s history since 1992 in terms of casualties. However, the situation could have been much worse, say, if the plane had instead run into the several parked fuel-laden aircraft, or into the arrival and departure lounges, which were all in proximity. TIA’s location within a densely populated urban area also increases the risks related to such accidents.
It will be a while before the exact reasons behind the crash can be ascertained. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (Caan) has retrieved the black box, which is a recording system found in aircraft that provides information on the situation on-board. A six-member investigative commission has also been formed by the government and Bangladesh has sent a high-level team to take stock of the situation. The Canadian company Bombardier, the manufacturer of the aircraft, too will send in an air safety investigator. Indeed, the investigations will shed further light on the crash. But initial findings seem to point to miscommunication and a failure to adhere to the set Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) on flight safety.
Recordings of the radio conversation between TIA’s air traffic controller (ATC) and surrounding aircraft—including the ill-fated US-Bangla BS 211—have become available to the public, though not through official channels. Recorded by an aviation enthusiast, the communication between the ATC and the US-Bangla pilots, which became viral on social media immediately after the crash, reveals a great degree of confusion about the landing approach. TIA’s runway can be used to land from both ends: the more common southern (02) approach, and the northern (20) approach. The recordings suggest that the aircraft in question was disoriented and perhaps did not understand what position it was in after entering Kathmandu’s airspace to land. There’s also a level of mystery as to why the captain, who had more than 5,000 hours of flying experience and was reportedly trained to land at the Kathmandu airport, would lose bearings or the sight of the runway, given that visibility was clear up to five kilometres. Did vital navigation instruments in the aircraft malfunction? Or perhaps, and even more disturbing, did one of the pilots have sudden health issues at the crucial time of landing?
Given permission to land from the south of the runway (the Koteshwor end), the pilot inexplicably moved the aircraft towards the north of the Valley. Upon remarks from pilots in other aircraft in the vicinity that the pilot attempting to land BS 211 could be disoriented, ATC asked the airplane whether they would like to approach the runaway from the south or the north (the Pashupati end). More communication between BS 211 and ATC and other aircraft in the vicinity ensued, and then something clearly went wrong, as BS 211 attempted to land on the runway from the western side, nearly hitting the tower and other airplanes at the parking bay before careening off the runway and coming to a halt on grassland.
After conversations with aviation professionals, and reviewing the timeline of events, we are left with many questions that need to be answered before we can piece together a coherent story-line that led to this tragedy. Why did BS 211 not approach the runway as it was cleared to do (from the south) in the first place, and why did it turn to go northwards? Kathmandu’s terrain and weather patterns require that pilots flying into TIA undergo specific training to land at this airport, and we are told by US-Bangla that Captain Abid Sultan was qualified enough in this respect. What then went wrong? If the pilot-in-command was disoriented, why did he not make the internationally recognised call of distress—Mayday—which would have set emergency SOPs in motion and perhaps averted disaster?
TIA’s ATC also has some answers to give. In its attempts to help, the tower may have added to the confusion. Allowing the aircraft to land from the northern end after it missed the approach from the southern side is not a safe practice. If the tower suspected that the pilot was disoriented, shouldn’t it have followed procedures to abandon the landing, ascertain the situation of the aircraft, and then ask it to go around again, queuing to land from the south? Unless the plane called distress to land immediately, which it had not, the tower should have asked it to go around again, instead of allowing it to attempt to land from its position. All of this seems to point to a lack of training, or at least a lack of adherence to training, on all sides.
In the end, the investigation will help us better understand the situation so that such a disaster may never occur again. Statements made by the US-Bangla Airlines CEO, Imran Asif, that the TIA authorities were to blame, without knowing what happened on the ground or in the air, are clearly unhelpful. There is no need for the Nepali authorities, especially TIA officials, to be defensive either. In the end, it is not a country-versus-country or organisation-versus-organisation issue. Lives were lost—51 of them—and each life—no matter the nationality—is an unrecoverable loss. The blame game only leads at least a section of the population, both in Nepal and Bangladesh, to form a very insular view on the accident, hence adding to confusion, instead of shedding light on it.